Something great about Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is that there’s not really any singular point at which things go off the rails for our characters. There’s no one moment where I read it and am like, “shit just got real.” In fact, because of the way the story is presented–as if it is a slightly scholarly history book, looking back on the events of the novel from some time later–there are remarkably few actual surprises for the reader.
And so, in these chapters, although there are big reveals for several of our main characters, the surprises for the reader are much smaller scale and sandwiched into the quieter moments between major events.
The biggest major event of this section of the book is Jonathan Strange learning that his wife, Arabella, is not dead at all, but has actually been imprisoned in Faerie all this time. The stand-out characters in these scenes, however, are the women–a fairy woman Jonathan Strange speaks with, Lady Pole, and Arabella herself.
Before seeing his wife alive, Strange’s first conversation at the Lost Hope party is with a fairy woman whose conversation seems to indicate that maybe the two English magicians ought to have paid better attention to Vinculus’s prophecy. Strange and Norrell must fail, she says, but Strange is unwilling or unable to understand–it’s too late for them to fail, he thinks.
After parting from the fairy woman, Strange runs into Arabella and Lady Pole. Arabella thinks he must have come to rescue them, but Lady Pole thinks (correctly) not. Lady Pole steals the scene here with her general disdain for the powers of men to do anything to help their situation. Jonathan Strange manages to look like a huge asshole throughout this whole party, to be honest, and it’s no different here.
Meanwhile, Stephen Black is trying unsuccessfully to persuade an irate gentleman with thistle-down hair that it would be best to release Lady Pole and Arabella from their enchantment to avoid angering the magician. However, the fairy gentleman has another plan entirely. To Stephen Black’s dismay, the gentleman expels Jonathan Strange from Lost Hope and places a powerful curse upon the magician.
Darkness, Misery, and Solitude
Sent forcibly back to Venice and reeling from the shock of seeing Arabella, Jonathan Strange goes immediately to tell Dr. Greysteel the news and warn him to send Flora Greysteel away. The doctor, who is a sensible man, is appalled at Strange’s seeming madness, but he can’t deny that things are getting weird. This is confirmed the next day when a huge dark tower has sprung up and looms over the city and the parish where Strange has been living is cloaked in a sort of permanent night.
Various luminaries of the city come to Dr. Greysteel to beg him to intercede with his friend the magician, but when Greysteel arrives to speak with Strange, the magician has not even been aware of the unusual darkness that surrounds him. Instead, Strange has been feverishly working magic and writing letters, primarily to Arabella’s brother, Henry Woodhope, asking him to come immediately.
While it’s not terribly important, there is, at the end of Chapter 56, an excellent encounter between Dr. Greysteel and Lord Byron, who discuss Strange’s madness. It’s a thematically interesting conversation between two characters who seem like they should never be in a room together, and it might be my favorite part of this section of the book.
Back in England, Henry Woodhope visits Mr. Norrell rather than going to Strange in Venice. Norrell denies any knowledge of what Strange’s letters might mean, and Norrell and Lascelles dissuade Henry from visiting his brother in law at all. Even the news that Arabella’s corpse had been replaced with a black log is explained away, and Strange’s letters to Henry are practically confiscated–only to turn up later, published in a misleadingly altered form in order to imply that Jonathan Strange murdered his wife with magic.
As the chapter ends, Lascelles is paying off someone’s debts–presumably the someone that he and Norrell are sending to retrieve Jonathan Strange since they don’t trust Childermass. Elsewhere in London, various ministers and the Duke of Wellington are gathered to discuss the Strange situation themselves.